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The Ten Encouragements

May 2003 | by John Benton

I have a theory that most Christians face discouragement so often that when encouragement comes along we are not sure how to handle it. We look at our feet and think: ‘Are they talking to me?’

Y

et the Word of God is full of encouragements and calls for us to encourage one another. Zechariah 8 is sometimes called ‘The Decalogue of Promises’. Instead of ten commandments it consists of ten encouragements.

Ten times in this chapter we read such words as: ‘This is what the Lord Almighty says’; and each time it is something favourable and hopeful for God’s people.

Medicine

Why did Zechariah preach encouragement? About 17 years earlier, in 519 BC, the first exiles had returned from Babylon with high hopes of a new life.

They began to rebuild the ruined temple in Jerusalem. But life was hard. The land was still dominated by the Persian empire. Taxes were high. The local inhabitants did not welcome the returning Jews.

The temple reconstruction was at a standstill. Life was a real plod for God’s people. For many of us also — labouring in struggling Evangelical churches, swimming against the tide at work — life may be similarly difficult.

Yet into this drab and depressing situation God sends his prophet with a strong dose of the required medicine.

Here we find ten Old Testament promises — each one rooted in the character of our unchangeable God — from which, in Christ, believers can draw strength for today (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).

The love of God

Zechariah begins by reminding us of the intensity of God’s affection: ‘This is what the Lord Almighty says, “I am very jealous for Zion; I am burning with jealousy for her”’ (v. 2).

Zion was God’s city, his dwelling place. It pictures the church, those who are in Christ (Hebrews 12:22). God loves his dwelling place, not in a loose, careless way, but with a jealous passion.

When, as a student, I fell in love with my wife Ann, there were other suitors. There was Lance with his motor scooter, a Welsh rugby international and other rivals for her affection.

I was jealous! She must be mine whatever lengths I had to go to!

This is just a poor picture of the way God loves us. Whether we are in big churches or small does not matter to him. We are his people.

And to what lengths would God go to make us his own? The Cross!

The holiness of God

The Lord continues: ‘I will return to Zion … Jerusalem will be called the City of Truth … the Holy Mountain’ (v. 3).

Jerusalem had been destroyed and the people taken into exile because the Lord had deserted them — on account of their lies, injustice and idolatry. But now he promises to return, and his holiness would transform the city, not condemn it.

The focus of all four Gospels is Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. There he cleansed the temple, prefiguring his great atonement for sin, making us fit for communion with God. There he poured out the Holy Spirit at Pentecost on the church.

We can be greatly encouraged as we surrender ourselves to God’s transforming holiness. How wonderful it is to see Christians growing in faith and maturity.

A lady in our own congregation, who has had great trials, recently testified: ‘I would not have had it any other way. God has been so real’.

The peace of God

What happens as the Lord returns? ‘Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets … The city … will be filled with boys and girls playing’ (vv. 4-5).

War and exile had brought emptiness to the thoroughfares of Jerusalem. But now the ‘shalom’ of God would bring a community of joy and wholeness across the generations.

Our world faces terrorism and conflict. But in Christ we have the peace that matters — peace with God.

Zechariah is showing us that to measure the health of a society we need to consider the place of the elderly and the young. Today the elderly are often ignored, while the young are robbed of a carefree childhood.

Thank God for churches where there is no generation gap, where old and young are one in Christ and mutual care.

The power of God

Years ago when I lived in Liverpool, I was moved to pray that the Lord would give me a black friend.

It might seem an unusual prayer, but soon afterwards I met Josiah, a pastor from Kenya spending a year at Bible college here.

We struck up a friendship that led to links with Kenya — support for churches; the rebuilding of a school; an aid project for orphans in the Nairobi slums; and much more. I also went to speak at conferences there.

That prayer was answered beyond anything I imagined. Of course, that is just one personal example. There are countless better examples from church history.

Did Jeremiah Lanphier have any idea that a prayer meeting in New York in September 1857, with just half a dozen people, would lead to a mighty revival, sweeping thousands into the churches? I doubt it.

The Lord asks through our prophet: ‘It may seem marvellous to the … people at that time, but will it seem marvellous to me?’ (v. 6).

Be encouraged. Zechariah’s powerful God is our God too. He is able to do far more than we could ever ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20).

The faithfulness of God

The prophesy continues: ‘I will save my people from the … east and the west … I will be faithful and righteous to them’ (vv. 7-8). Decades earlier, through prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, God had promised to bring his people back from exile.

Now, even though it was a slog, he was doing it. He is a faithful God who can be relied upon. Be encouraged.

The sovereignty of God

This comes out in verses 8-13, which almost form a short sermon on their own. We can be discouraged because we think things cannot change.

The Jews had downed tools, but the prophet says, ‘Let your hands be strong so that the temple may be built’ (v. 9).

‘Before’, says the Lord, ‘no one could go about their business safely … But now I will not deal … as I did in the past’. There is a ‘Before’ and a ‘But now’.

We often fall into a deterministic way of thinking — as if God is limited by the laws of economics or sociology. But he is not.

Such laws have their place, but, ultimately, the world is in the hands of the sovereign God, the Lord Almighty. Believing in him, who knows what a year may bring?

The zeal of God

Next comes an unusual comparison: ‘ Just as I had determined to bring disaster upon you … when your fathers angered me’, says the Lord Almighty, ‘so now I am determined to do good again to Jerusalem … Do not be afraid’ (vv. 14-15).

Today we frequently read of murders or acts of terrorism. Weeping relatives vow to see the perpetrators brought to book. Fired by grief and righteous anger, police chiefs appear on TV declaring that they will leave no stone unturned to find the culprits.

If man can display such iron determination, shall not God? Yes, but not to punish — to bless!

The joy of God

The exiles had set up fasts to commemorate Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion and the destruction of the temple (7:1-3).

‘Now we are back in the land, rebuilding the temple’, they asked, ‘should we continue these fasts?’ The Lord answers: ‘The fasts … will become joyful and glad occasions and happy festivals for Judah’ (v. 19).

He turns their fasting into feasting. Sin brings sorrow, but the grace of God to sinners brings joy. God loves to share his joy with his people in Christ: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’ (Philippians 4:4).

The vitality of God

In verses 20-22, the Lord says he will make his city the blessing of the nations. In Old Testament times people went to the temple to find God. But Jesus is the true temple (compare Isaiah 2:2, 3; John 12:32).

Christ is found as his people share the gospel. And how privileged we are to live in this age! The last quarter of a century has surely witnessed the mightiest revival ever, with millions in China and other parts of the world turning to Christ, even amid the fires of persecution.

The nations are finding the life and blessing of God, as he promised. Who knows — might the Lord soon reverse the fortunes of his church in our own land?

The victory of God

The people of God were despised. The idea that salvation was ‘of the Jews’ seemed laughable as they cleared up the rubble of Jerusalem.

But God said, ‘In those days ten men from all languages … will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say “Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you”’ (v. 23).

Who is this ‘one Jew’ of whom the people take hold? Surely it is Jesus! ‘They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched him were healed’ (Mark 6:56).

God vindicated his Old Testament people through the coming of the Messiah — and one day he will vindicate us too, for Christ will come again.

The world that scoffs at the church will be stunned to find that just as we are not ashamed of Christ, he is not ashamed of us.

Response

As God gives us such promises, how should we respond? ‘Speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgement … do not plot evil against your neighbour and do not love to swear falsely … love truth and peace’ (vv. 16-18). Let us apply that within our churches!

The ministry of encouragement is vital. For God’s activity matches the measure of our faith. Jesus said, ‘According to your faith be it unto you’ (Matthew 9:29).

Let us encourage one another in Christ, as God encourages us.